"Is he fixable?" my client asks. She is a nice, older woman and "he" is Samson, a medium-sized, brown dog with deep black eyeliner and a jet black nose. Samson is in my office because he growls at people that he doesn't know. Last week, he bit a delivery man.
"Nope," I say. "He is a dog, not a broken stereo. He can get better, a lot better, but he will always have the predisposition toward this behavior."
Samson's owner asked the question that I hear each day, every day. She wants to know if her dog is "fixable." Dogs are living, breathing beings with their own minds. They make their own decisions. They are not dents in a car that can just be fixed. They are not robots. Can you 100% guarantee your behavior tomorrow? Are you fixable?
Behavior disorders are not like orthopedic disorders, at least not exactly. Many orthopedic disorders are fixable. For example, my dog Sweetie who has since passed on had osteoarthritis due to hip dysplasia. We got her two new hips. She was fixed. You can find out more about Sweetie's surgery and all that we went through with her orthopedic problems here.
Behavioral disorders are much like dermatologic disorders. The dogs are treated and often get better, but there is always the chance of relapse. For me, this concept is not so difficult to understand. I have emotional baggage. Unless you were raised in that perfect family that you see on T.V., you have some too. It has taken my adult life to work through some of that baggage, but a dog who can't speak English and has the brain power of a one year old child should just fix his emotional baggage? This is a completely unrealistic expectation. Can we cut the dog a break?
I further explained to Samson's Mom that by modifying her expectation of her pet, she would be better able to help him. If she can wrap her head around what her dog can achieve, she will most likely reach that goal. If she is stuck with her head in the clouds, it will be harder for her to be successful.
What is a realistic expectation for Samson? Some short-term goals (reachable in 2 months or so with work) would be for him to stop growling at unfamiliar people about 50-75 percent of the time when his owner is holding his leash and working with him.
Unrealistic goals for the next two months include:
- Allowing Samson to be loose with the owner's grandkids or any unfamiliar people.
- Allowing Samson to be at the door when the owner receives a package or people come over.
- Going to the dog park.
- Letting people pet Samson when on a walk.
What happens after two months? If Samson is doing well, we can build on his plan so that we can reach higher goals like meeting new people in the house or being loose when a delivery comes. What is interesting is that owners often accept the first level goal and don't push to the 2nd level goal.
What I mean is that when I see dogs like Samson for a recheck, the owners are often perfectly happy and don't push to higher goals of having the dog off leash with people that he doesn't know. It isn't me. In many cases, I would be happy to help them go further. I think that owners often realize that their dog is happier without all that stress. Their dog doesn't want to meet new people. They also feel happier themselves. They have good control over their dog so they are less stressed.
Their dog isn't fixed, but he is safe and happy. And that is enough.
Dr. Lisa Radosta